The Thessalonian Saints Cyril and Methodios, Teachers of the Slavs – Part I

11 May 2014


By the beginning of the ninth century, more than a thousand years had already passed since the foundation of the city of Thessaloniki (315 B. C.). During this time, the city had known days of magnificent glory and grim disaster, though it had remained famous and proud throughout.

As capital of Illyricum during the Byzantine era it was forced to make Herculean efforts to preserve Hellenism and Christianity against the barbarians who poured down from the north: the Goths, Huns, Avars and Slavs.

Its protector in these struggles was the all-glorious martyr Dimitrios, who appeared on the walls of the city in a white toga and fortified the defenders any time that invaders laid siege. This is why the Thessalonians lost no opportunity to express their gratitude to their redeemer Saint as we see from the inscription that was found in his church:

Here you see the builders of the glorious church

On either side of the martyr Dimitrios

Who scatters the barbarous host of the barbarian fleets

And redeems the city.

At the end of the seventh century, the incursions ceased and Thessaloniki embarked on a new period of prosperity. Thus far, Saint Dimitrios had preserved the city from the barbarian raids by force, but now he reinforced the task of pacifying the barbarians with the word and the spirit. This task was no stranger to the Christian tradition of the city, which had been, in Apostolic times, a centre for the transmission of the Gospel to the Greek realms.

This is why Saint Paul wrote to the Thessalonians in the most glowing terms: “so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you, not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place your faith toward God has gone forth, so that we have no need to say anything”.

These words were to come true again at the time of the great missionaries Cyril and Methodios.

At the beginning of the third century, the scholar priest Ioannis Kameniatis described the city and its environs in bright colours. Rich plains, he said, opened on either side of Mount Hortiatis. To the north, much of the area was taken up by two lakes, which had an abundance of fish, and the rest was either under cultivation or was grazed by domestic animals. The plain which stretched out from the south of the mountain and east of the city was noted as being indescribably beautiful, with fields, vineyards, gardens, dense woods and abundant water. The numerous monasteries at the foot of mountain and the plain were a sight to behold for wayfarers and visitors alike. And there was another plain, equally, fertile, which stretched out to the west of the city.

Thessaloniki at that time was large and populous surrounded by powerful walls and outposts. A host of people thronged the market and the large avenue which divided the two parts of the city. Its economic growth had made it a centre which attracted the interest of merchants, as well as the lust for plunder on the part of pirates from all parts of the known world.

Magnificent churches and imposing public buildings adorned the squares and received the populace in order to satisfy their religious and social requirements. Its archbishop’s throne was honoured at that time by two outstanding personalities from other regions, Iosif the Hymnographer and Leon the Mathematician, who was to go on to be Dean of the University of Constantinople.

But the bright garland of its glory was woven by two of its own children, Cyril and Methodios.

Methodios and Konstantinos.

 The parents of the two brothers were of noble lineage. Their father, Leo, served in Thessaloniki as drungarius, that is as a brigadier, and was later promoted to general. He then had all the political and military authority in Macedonia in his own hands. They had seven children, of whom the last, Konstantinos, was born in 827. Methodios was born in about 820.

The atmosphere of godliness which prevailed in Leo’s house gave the boys their first impulses towards spiritual concerns. Their steps often led them to the wonderful churches in the city, to the Aheiropiito (the Icon not made by Hands), to Ayia Sofia (Holy Wisdom) and, much more often to the church of the patron saint of the city, Saint Dimitrios, whose procession they followed each year along the great avenue.

Sometimes they would go outside the walls to visit the numerous monasteries which lay scattered about the countryside. Taking part in the liturgical life of the Church cultivated and refined their characters.

When their father died, Methodios had finished his studies. He had taken a curriculum which was designed for those who were educated to assume posts in the upper echelons of the civil service. The empress Theodora appointed him governor of “Sklavinia”, that is that province of the Greek empire which was inhabited mainly by Slavs, who had made peaceful inroads and occupied sparsely-populated areas.

There he concerned himself with a more systematic effort to learn Slavonic, of which he already had a rudimentary knowledge from the family servants who were of Slav origins.

A few years later, he abandoned this office in order to retreat to Olympus in Bithynia. At that time, this mountain was what Athos would later become: a mountain of monks. So he settled into one of the monasteries and zealously applied himself to the ascetic life, to prayer and the study of theology.

Konstantinos, who would be re-named Cyril in the last days of his life, showed considerable learning abilities from an early age. At the age of 14, when his father died, he had already memorized the writings of Gregory the Theologian.

He later went to Constantinople to continue his studies at the university, which had only just been re-founded and was run by the outstanding academic, Leo the Mathematician, a former archbishop of Thessaloniki.

In the capital he lived with and was ward to a kinsman, Theoktistos, who was “logothete of the road”, i.e. prime minister. Under the guidance of Leo and Fotios, he studied geometry, astronomy, music, rhetoric, philology, dialectics and philosophy. He was particularly gifted in language learning.

He was, in fact, a phenomenal polyglot, not only for his own era, in which the methodology for teaching foreign languages was unknown, but for any period before or since. Apart from Greek, he knew Slavonic, Syriac, Hebrew, Samaritan, Arabic, Khazar (Turkish), Latin and probably more besides.

Unlike his brother, Konstantinos did not leave the capital, even though at one time he thought to imitate him by going to a monastic house on the Bosporus. He was ordained priest, appointed librarian to the patriarchate and, finally, promoted to professor of philosophy at the university of Constantinople. From that time on, he was known as Konstantinos the Philosopher. But he, too, lived an ascetic life.

The two brothers prepared for the great missions they would be called on to undertake. They were both possessed of a notable capacity for action and had acquired enviable academic qualifications. They also sought something else: spiritual perfection.

In their monastic cells they managed to ascend to God through prayer and this ascent was an enduring experience for them. They were men in the body and angels in the soul.

The Reconstitution of Byzantium 

Greek Byzantium had, for two hundred years, been in a state of shrinkage (reduction of its territorial extent) which was due to three causes: first, the ceaseless incursions by barbarous peoples, especially from the north and south, which caused continuous haemorrhaging; secondly from the rejection of conquests of foreign soil, which resulted from the desire to preserve the ancestral heritage and to spread it abroad; and thirdly, the hundred-year-long civil strife over the icons.

This situation was exploited, on the one hand by the Arabs, who underwent an unexpected awakening, and, on the other, by the Slavs, with a long and methodical process of infiltration. These managed to deprive the Byzantines of many of their richest provinces, such as Egypt, Palestine, Syria and large areas of Thrace and Illyria.

Christianity was also under continuous pressure at this time. Whereas, since the period of the end of the persecutions until the appearance of the above peoples on the borders of the empire, the Christian religion had managed to expand into the depths of Africa and the furthest points of Asia, from now on it retreated rapidly and lost almost all its positions in those continents, as far as the northern regions of the Balkans.

In the middle of the ninth century,  a radical change came about, which coincided with the cessation of the iconoclast struggle. Under the leadership of three men, Emperor Michael III, the Prime Minister, Vardas, and Patriarch Fotios, the Byzantine Greeks within the empire regrouped, were re-organized militarily and reborn spiritually. This spiritual renaissance was the  main force which boosted the whole recovery of the state.

Mission to the Saracens

Part of this programme was to face the Muslims, who, having seized rich regions of the empire, continued to launch raids into the eastern provinces, aimed mainly at looting.

Many millions of Christians also lived under the domination of the Muslim Arabs. These people needed  to take courage and their conquerors had to be made to treat them less harshly. Byzantine arms were unable to influence the situation to any great extent, however.

In 856, Fotios was sent to the caliphate of Baghdad for political negotiations. A few years later, perhaps 860, another mission was entrusted to Konstantinos, which was aimed at improving the position of Christians there through discussions which were to be held with Caliph Mutawakkil.

There was some hope that it might be possible to restrain the fanaticism and momentum of the Arabs by reason, but even more that the morale of the subject Christians would be boosted by the knowledge that a dynamic man of their own religion had visited the capital of the Caliphate and had shamed the Muslim theologians.

He reached the capital of the caliphate with a secretary at a time of increased pressure on and persecution of Christians. Among other things, the rulers had forced the Christians to paint the form of the devil on the doors of their houses.

During the course of his visit, Konstantinos was asked ironically by the Muslims what this depiction meant. He replied with the quickness of mind that was so characteristic of him: “I see representations of devils and conclude that within these houses live Christians and that, because the devils can’t co-exist with them, they have left the houses. Wherever I don’t see these depictions, the devils are obviously living inside”.

In a discussion with Muslim theologians over dinner, Konstantinos touched upon one of the most important points of difference between the two religions.

The Christians, he said, strive for the acquisition of perfection with moral struggles. The path they tread has its ups and downs, but their achievements are more spiritual.

Muslims do not struggle morally, because their religious law does not have prohibitions, which is why they cannot enjoy ethical advancement.

Konstantinos’ mission to the Arab state did, in fact, bring a certain amount of relief to the Christians there. On their return, they passed by the monastic house of his brother Methodios, on Olympus, and he stayed there a while to rest.

Mission to Russia

Konstantinos’ earlier mission was neither fortuitous nor an isolated event. For two centuries now, Christianity and the Greek empire had been shrinking because of Arab incursions. It was now time for them to awaken from this centuries-long decline and enter a period of rapid development. Unfortunately, efforts towards expansion in the east brought no results. But if Christianity was losing ground in the south and east because of the blood-soaked violence of the Muslims, there was room for action in the north.

Patriarch Fotios realized that the moment was opportune for the Slavs and Turks of the north, the Khazars, both having come into contact with Greeks in earlier times, to be won over and brought into the group of Christian peoples, and, at the same time, into the circle of civilized humanity.

To ensure a sound basis for any effort in this direction there would have to be a careful study made of the Slav people in particular, a literary framework given to the Slavonic language and the necessary books translated into it.

In preparation for this work, a specialist centre for Slav studies was set up in Constantinople, at which missionaries and cultural envoys were trained. Emperor Michael and Patriarch Fotios appointed Konstantinos as head of the enterprise, and thereafter he assumed responsibility for all religious and cultural missions.

In June 860, a Russian host launched an attack of unusual ferocity on Constantinople, using dugout canoes. In a sermon, Fotios described it in these terms: “The surprise of the attack, its unexpected speed, the inhumanity of the barbarous tribe, ferocity of their behaviour and their hostility presented the disaster as a bolt sent from the heavens”. Fortunately, the attack was repulsed as unexpectedly as it had been launched.

The Russians were a Slav people, subject at that time to a small group of Scandinavian origin, the Varangians, who had made their way south through Lake Ladoga. Even though the Russians were a subject nation, their language eventually prevailed and, in the end, the Varangians were absorbed into them.

At that time, they occupied the land between the great rivers Dnieper and Don.  During their attack on the capital of the Greek empire, their mythical Tsargrad, they saw all its splendour and during their repulsed attack they came to know, from experience, its power.

So they realized that it was preferable to have the friendship rather than the enmity of the Greeks. And Byzantium facilitated them in this. It was felt that it would be useful to send an embassy which would be capable of putting in place the foundations for the Christianization of the Slavs of the north and also of the Khazars, who lived to the east of them.

This would also be beneficial from a political standpoint, because Christianity always brought with it moderation in moral attitudes and, to some extent, assuaged the hostile intentions of the barbarians who accepted it.

The emperor and Fotios could not have found a more suitable candidate than Konstantinos. Even though he had returned from his mission to the Arabs only a short while previously, he readily accepted the charge and took with him Methodios, who appears to have followed him to the capital from Olympus.

Methodios was older than Konstantinos, but submitted to him as being better suited to missionary duties. He worked mainly on prayer, his brother with the word, though later he was to became a very effective organizer himself.

The two brothers travelled by ship to the Crimean Peninsula. The state of affairs in the Crimea was very fluid: to the east they were dominated by the Khazars, to the north by the Russians and to the west by the Hungarians, while groups of these peoples also lived within the peninsula itself. A good few Greek residents had also remained there, as well as some monks.

One day, when the missionaries were celebrating the liturgy[1] at a Greek monastery, a crowd of Hungarians attacked, ready to cut them to pieces. The brothers remained perfectly calm. They merely said, “Lord have mercy” and continued with the service. When the attackers saw that they were not afraid,  they were astonished and bothered them no further.

In the Crimea, Konstantinos gave evidence of his involvement with languages and the work of translation. He encountered well-educated rabbis and took the opportunity of their presence to improve his knowledge of Hebrew.

He also translated a Hebrew grammar while there, the first of its kind. Besides this, he met an elderly Samaritan, who showed him the Bible of his community, that is the Samaritan Pentateuch, which Konstantinos managed to read.

Among the Russians, he found fragments of the Gospels and the Psalms translated into Slavonic with Syriac characters. Then he realized, again, that what was needed was a new alphabet, capable of rendering all the sounds of Slavonic.

Before proceeding eastwards, they drew from the sea the relics of Saint Clement, Bishop of Rome. According to an old tradition, Clement had been exiled to the Crimea in 100 A.D. and his gaolers had cast him into the sea with a stone around his neck.

The brothers took the relics to a church on the peninsula and took away part of them, which they later brought to Rome. In honour of Clement, Konstantinos wrote a Life, a panegyric and hymns.

The results of this mission were important. They did not advance into the hinterland of the land of the Russians but made contact with their representatives in the Crimea and in areas to the north. The Russians allowed the missionaries free access to their country and accepted a bishop. In this way, sound foundations were laid for the complete Christianization of the vast country in the next century.

Mission to the Khazars 

After staying in the Crimea for some months, the missionaries went into Khazaria. This was precisely at the time when the leader of the Khazars was seeking, through his representatives, to have the mission in his country to demonstrate the superiority of Christianity over Judaism and Mohammedanism, so that his people would accept it.

The two brothers were appointed  to the task of visiting his country. At that time, the Khazars, a tribe of the Turkish family of nations, held the region from the Crimea up  to the Lower Volga and from the Black Sea to the Caspian. They had been civilized to a greater extent than the other Turkish tribes and their country was a centre of attraction for Greek, Arab and Jewish merchants.

They had been on friendly terms with the Byzantines since the seventh century. Justinian II fled there and married one of the daughters of the leader, the Khagan. A few decades later, the daughter of another Khagan, Irene, would become the wife of Konstantinos V.

Their leaders now felt the need for even closer links, one path to which would be the acceptance of the Christian religion.

They already believed in a single God, doubtless under indirect influence from Christianity, but Judaism and Mohammedanism had already begun to spread among the people. What idolatry lost, these gained and immediate action was imperative.

Konstantinos and Methodios left the peninsula by ship and disembarked on the eastern shores of the Black Sea. Itil was the capital of Khazaria, but the Khagan also used to reside at times in Sarkel, a town close to the Black Sea, which had been built by Byzantine architects.

At the Khagan’s table, a succession of discussions was held, first with representatives of the Jews and then with the Mohammedans, at which Konstantinos defeated them roundly. It made a great impression. Two hundred leading men were baptized at once by the missionaries and others declared they would follow later. The Khagan himself stated the same in a letter to the emperor.

The missionaries returned to Constantinople again, via the Crimean peninsula.

[1] The Life says that he was reading the First Hour and had reached the point near the end where “Lord have mercy” is said. Also, P. Király maintains that the reference is to the normal cries which the ancient Hungarians shouted and that they had no hostile intentions towards the Byzantine mission, but, on the contrary, allowed them to go freely on their way (trans. note).